My Decline in Journalistic Excellence

Well readers, as interesting as some of the things I learned in Politics were, I expected those courses to be boring and demanding at times; not quite as boring and demanding as they ended up being, but boring and demanding nonetheless. I didn’t think Environmental Science would be as difficult as it was, but going in to last semester, I expected it to be a little difficult, and knew I would hate it at times because I just don’t really care for science since it is so visual. Speaking of Environmental Science, I forgot to mention in the last entry that if you wanted to see my finished product on wikispaces, it is still available. If you couldn’t care less about my research, I understand, but if anyone is interested in reading it, my wiki page is at http://enviornmentalhealth.wikispaces.com. But anyway, Investigative Reporting, the class I took last semester to earn my last four credits was a course that I thought would be my dream class, the class that I would breeze through. Not only that, but with all of the Journalism experience I have had in the past, I thought I would be the star student of the class, with each assignment bringing me more and more confidence that I could become the next Chris Hansen or Brian Ross. Chris Hansen and Brian Ross are television journalists of course, and even though I am blind, I still would get extremely nervous thinking about all of the people listening to me and possibly judging me if I had to speak on television, so that is out of the question. But as I mentioned in an entry about a month and a half ago, as long as I can write stories that are completely true and not have to invent a character and a life for that character, I love to write, and I imagined myself doing for a newspaper or an online written publication what Journalists like Chris Hansen and Brian Ross have done for television: exposing the truth, righting injustice, and being a totally awesome representative for that fourth, and I believe most important branch of the government whose responsibility it is to keep society informed and hold businesses and governments accountable. But maybe I should back up a little bit and tell you readers the story behind my Journalistic ambitions.

I definitely was not a Journalism child prodigy. I wasn’t following the news before I could talk, or telling my parents “I want to be a Journalist when I grow up!” at the age of two or three the way some kids do. Well, I actually don’t know if there has ever been such a thing as a Journalism child prodigy like there are for sports and music, but you get my drift. Anyway, my story is nothing amazing like that. Like any child, my dreams for what I wanted to be when I grew up changed day by day. If we read a children’s book in school about doctors or hospitals, I thought it would be fun to be a nurse. If we were doing fun things in school, I would imagine myself as a teacher when I grew up and play school with my dolls. And every time an author came to speak to us in elementary school, I would think how exciting it might be to be a famous author, but of course since my creative writing skills have always been pretty mediocre, I soon decided not to waste my time on that dream, and when I got to high school and my essay writing skills really started to develop, I briefly thought about being an essayist, but decided I wasn’t going to contribute to the torture of future high school and college students, probably the only audience essayists have and an unhappy audience at that, by writing essays. So toward the end of my sophomore year of high school when it started to dawn on me that I only had two more years of school before I was off to college, and I still had no concrete idea what to study in college, which would determine what I do with my life, I was getting scared.

Then, in late March or early April of that year, I found out that junior year, I would be eligible for a mentorship program coordinated by my high school where a select group of students could spend forty hours with a person actually working in a career field that they think would interest them. At an informational meeting for students and parents interested in this program, the lady who coordinates the program said it is very competitive and they often are not able to accommodate everyone who applies. But my grades, which were a large factor in determining who was accepted in to the program, were excellent, so I decided it couldn’t hurt to apply because the coordinator said that it has been a wonderful experience for students in the past by allowing them to get firsthand knowledge of a career, the best way to determine whether or not it is the career for them. So I filled out the application, and when it asked for my first, second and third choice of career fields to explore and showed a huge list of possibilities, I was drawn to newspaper reporting. I actually didn’t know much about newspaper writing at that time because I actually hadn’t read that many newspaper articles in my life since the only method of reading that I was open to was braille, and our local newspapers are not available in braille. Now of course, I am reading a lot more newspaper articles because I subscribed to NFB Newsline, a service that makes the main stories of hundreds of newspapers all across the country available either for listening over the phone in a computer voice or on an easy to navigate website that is completely accessible using my braillenote. If I want to read an article that is not on NFB Newsline, and to my frustration, there are a lot of interesting columns that my parents tell me about which are not available through this service, I have gotten much more comfortable with accessing newspaper websites using Jaws. But for much of my life, my parents had to read articles to me, and since I didn’t want to impose on them to read to me, I didn’t read newspaper articles very often. But since I loved writing by the time I filled out this application, I knew that the newspaper writing style was something I could quickly learn, and since I had been getting Reader’s Digest in braille since I was in eighth grade, I wrote on my application essay how much I loved reading this columnist, Michael Crowley who has a column called “That’s Outrageous” in this magazine every month, where he discusses an anger arousing event like congress wasting taxpayer money or kindergartners being suspended for having a toy gun in their backpack. I also mentioned in the essay how I could see myself doing some kind of news related writing like that for a career. I didn’t mention this in the essay, but I also felt like I would do well in this kind of career because despite my lack of knowledge about the newspaper writing style, I have been fascinated by news and politics ever since September 11, an event that was my first real understanding of how much more there was to worry about than just what was in my little world of school, homework and childhood, and since I watched the news on television a lot, I couldn’t help paying attention to how these Journalists reported the news. So before I had even taken a Journalism class, I was starting to be aware of some of the mechanics of news reporting like being completely unbiased and backing everything up with statistics from credible sources or through the use of direct quotes and interviews. Television reporting is different from writing of course, but these basic principles are applicable to both, so I knew newspaper writing would be something I could easily learn. Anyway, for my second choice on the application, I put radio broadcasting because although I wasn’t comfortable with speaking, I would have been alright trying out this field because maybe I could discover that radio broadcasting isn’t as scary as I imagined it being, and the coordinator said that even if students leave the program and decide that the career field they explored was definitely not something they wanted to pursue further, coming to this realization would still make the experience valuable and worthwhile. I don’t remember what I marked as my third choice, but that doesn’t matter because I ended up getting my first choice, newspaper reporting.

It took a while for arrangements to be made, but starting in January of my junior year, I would report to the office of the editor in chief of a small local newspaper. Though this program only lasted four months, I have never felt more grown up in my life than I did in those months. The editor I mentored with had absolutely no reservations about the fact that I was blind, and I didn’t just observe him. I got to do cool stuff, like sit in on an interview with the governor and ask my own questions, sit in on a town hall meeting and a school board meeting and most excitingly, interview students at my high school and the other high school in my district to write a story about people’s opinions on a costly referendum to renovate these schools. This story was actually published in the newspaper with my own byline, and only minimal editing! This mentor gave me so much encouragement, and amazed me by telling me that my writing was better than the writing of many college interns he has worked with, so when I completed this program, I was one of the glowing students who had found the career for them. This experience gave me the confidence to write for the school newspaper my senior year, and I was one of the first to show up for the first staff meeting to write for my college newspaper. Writing for the college newspaper proved to be a little more difficult because unlike high school where I pretty much knew and was comfortable approaching every student and teacher I needed to interview for a story, in college, everyone was a stranger, and I was surprised to find that college was a lot more like the real world than I thought it would be, meaning that some of the administration that I needed to interview for stories didn’t want to give me the time of day. So my confidence wavered at times, but was boosted after I took an introductory news writing class where I got more formal education about how to write concise, relevant and informative stories, as well as gain more experience with interviewing and being comfortable talking to strangers. I was a star student in this class, and the professor actually told me about the advanced news writing class that I took last semester at the end of my freshman year before it was officially offered in the course listings, and recommended I take it. My confidence was boosted to the heavens when I wrote a story for my college newspaper last September about some housing offered to students that was in terrible condition, a story the student editor said she absolutely loved and it was the best story I had written for the paper! I had found my calling as an Investigative reporter!

But as they say, every star must fall. Actually, my star didn’t really fall because I still got an A in the class. But to get that A, I had to endure so much frustration, exhaustion and confidence deflation that the feelings of excitement and fulfillment that I was training for a noble profession, and the confidence that I had my life all figured out at the beginning of the class were replaced by feelings of discouragement and uncertainty by the end of the class. So what was behind this disappointing transformation? Well, to start with, as I mentioned back in January, this class was the first night class I had ever taken, and while I have been going to evening choir rehearsals since seventh grade, I was correct about my fear that choir rehearsal where there is a lot of standing and activity, is a lot different from a class where you are just sitting at a desk. I do love to write in the evenings, so I was absolutely fine if I was engaged in an in-class writing assignment. But these assignments were few and far between since most of our writing was based on research and interviews that we had to do outside of class. A lot of the class time was very interesting because the professor who was actually an investigative reporter at a large local newspaper, would regularly have other reporters he worked with come in and speak to the class about their experiences. For example, one reporter was a multimedia journalist which meant that he didn’t do as much writing, but was in charge of taking stories reporters wrote, and adding a creative angle to it, usually by making videos to supplement the story on the newspaper’s website. To illustrate the effects of a heat wave one summer, he made a really funny video about people roasting hot dogs on top of their cars. We also had a police reporter, and a women who won a prestigious journalism award for an investigative series published in our paper about daycare owners that were receiving state money that was supposed to be used to care for the children of poor working parents. But it turned out that many of these daycare owners were instead billing the state for kids they didn’t care for, or they would have employees of the daycare send children who could have been in school to daycare so that they could bill the state for more children and get rich. The fraud uncovered by this investigation was of such a massive scale that our state passed new laws to reform that program. The professor himself had a lot of wonderful experiences to share about the power Journalists had to initiate reform and right injustice. He even had the opportunity to investigate a man who was wrongfully convicted for murdering a woman, and when he showed us a huge box of documents he had to read for that investigation, and told us how many interviews he had to do and all of the hurdles he had trying to get these interviews, it was fascinating and a true testament to how rewarding the profession can be. But since my other classes kept me up so late every night, by the time I got to this night class, which of course had to be held in a cozy carpeted room with soft computer chairs, I was too burnt out and sleepy to really engage in the class, ask questions and show this professor, who my advisor told me would be an excellent person to use as a reference when I start looking for jobs, that I really did care about this class, and this potentially noble profession. It was even harder to stay awake when the professor spent a couple of weeks talking about computer assisted reporting, something which many professional journalists aren’t comfortable with, but something he believes will be extremely helpful for us when we get in to the field. Computer assisted reporting involved learning how to access things like court records online, and analyze data on spreadsheets. I had Jaws on the school computer, so at the beginning of the class, I was excited that I would be able to participate fully in the class activities, and follow along when the professor demonstrated things. But by the end of each class, it became clear that having Jaws, and being able to keep up with the class using Jaws are two different stories because the professor had so much he wanted to cover each class that he would just tell the other kids to click on stuff with the mouse, which they could do in an instant, and forget to show me how to find it with the keys. So it wasn’t long at all before I was left behind in a cloud of dust. Once it became clear that keeping up was out of the question, I knew I should listen and take notes so that maybe I could figure things out at my own pace when I got home, but would catch myself dozing off instead. Fortunately, my professor was wonderfully understanding and would let me do computer assignments with a partner, but I still don’t feel like I would be prepared to be a really good journalist because I never did have time to fully master these skills on my own.

But we didn’t just listen to reporters talk about their work and how they used computers to do it for this class. We had plenty of work of our own. The first couple of weeks were pretty easy since the professor gave us some assignments to just review what we had learned in the introductory news writing class which was a prerequisite to this class. So I wrote a profile of a stranger which was still a little awkward, but not too bad since I had done it before. The week after that, we were asked to take a topic in the national news, and cover it from a local angle, so I wrote a story about the Toyota recall and how it was effecting local dealerships. Of course, for public relations reasons, I could only find one person at a local dealer who would agree to an interview, and it was kind of stressful for me, and my dad who had to drive me all over creation looking for Toyota dealers. But I have experienced similar issues for other stories, so I handled it pretty smoothly in the end. But that all changed when it came time for beat reporting. For those of you unfamiliar with Journalism terminology, beat reporting basically means that you are assigned to a category like police reporting, government reporting or court reporting just to name a few, and then that category basically becomes your specialty, and most of the stories you write are for that category. I actually did get to do beat reporting in my introductory news writing class, but there were two key differences to reporting in that class versus this class. First, in the introductory class, we got to choose what beat we wanted to cover, whereas in this class, everyone had to draw from a hat, and whatever beat they drew, they had to cover, no trading allowed. And second, in the introductory class, we were simply learning how to write news stories, so someone on the government beat would just do a straight forward story about what was covered at a student senate meeting, or a police beat person would just write a story giving the who, what, where and when of a petty crime near campus like a car being broken in to or something. But for this class, being that it was an investigative reporting class, we had to find investigative stories. That, it turned out, would prove to be easier said than done. Remember a few pages ago when I told you about the awesome investigative story I wrote for the campus newspaper about the poor condition of some student housing? Well, what I took for granted at the time I wrote that story was that my editor had already done half the work for me by simply finding that story! And when I think about it now, the same was true for pretty much all of my previous Journalism experiences. Once a month when I went to my high school and college newspaper meetings, the format of these meetings was the same. The editor for each section of the newspaper would stand up and rattle off a list of story ideas they had compiled, and then, once all of the editors had presented their story ideas, writers would find the editor that had a story they were interested in, and sign up for that story. In my high school mentorship, the editor would tell me what story to write. In my introductory news writing class, we had to look for stories sometimes, but since the stories were so straight forward, they hardly required any effort to find. It turns out that often, that is not how Journalism works in the real world. The textbook chapters and the professor gave plenty of guidance on potential places to find stories, such as reading other newspapers and crime briefs, which is where I went for all of my stories, as well as just paying attention to your surroundings and getting out in the community to talk to people. But since I had to do so much research for other classes, I didn’t have a lot of time left to research story ideas, and this research actually proved to be even more difficult than the research for my politics and environmental science classes because while researching story ideas did not require ten scholarly sources, it was almost easier to face the drudgery of finding scholarly sources on a concrete topic like environmental racism than it was to research when I didn’t know what I was searching for. So often times, I wouldn’t be able to find an idea for my beat story until the very last minute. Fortunately, the professor required us to email him our story idea the week before the story was due, otherwise my procrastination habit could have really gotten me in to trouble since I don’t think I could research a story idea, get the three required interviews, and write the story in one night.

And then, once I found an idea that I thought showed promise for making an interesting investigative story, the story would fall flat once I had gotten more information from the interviews. For example, one day in March, I went to check my college e-mail when I noticed an e-mail thanking me for registering with linkedin.com. I have heard of this site before. I think it is a site where professionals can post their profiles and network with other professionals. But being that I am still a student who has not officially entered the professional scene yet, I never registered with this site. I started to panic, fearing that someone had hacked in to my e-mail account, until I realized that this e-mail was sent from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship list serve, so everyone on this e-mail list had gotten this message. I remember thinking it seemed a little out of character for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to register everyone with this kind of site without our permission, and sure enough, a short while later there was an e-mail from a student on the leadership team who said she had no idea what was going on either, and that Intervarsity did not do anything on linkedin.com. And then I remembered that while this was the first time a whole list serve had received spam, I have occasionally received other spam messages in the past, usually from pharmacies wanting to sell me drugs online, and it occurred to me that the spam I get, and the spam sent to the Intervarsity e-mail list could be just the tip of the iceberg on a huge problem that could potentially pose a threat to internet security at the college. What a perfect idea for a story, and I didn’t even have to comb crime reports to look for it! This incident happened right before spring break, and the story was due two weeks after we got back from break. So on the first day back from break, when I still had not heard what had become of this issue, I e-mailed the team leader and asked her if I could interview her about the incident, thinking that since she was a student, I would have no problem getting her to talk to me. But to my frustration, she had already perfected the public relations attitude just like the toyota dealers and the school administration, and said the issue had been resolved and she would rather not talk about it. That left me no choice but to simply write about spam in general, and that wasn’t much of a story. I managed to get an interview with the chief officer in the Information Technology Department who said they have software to filter out most spam, but there is no perfect software out there that can filter out everything, and how students can forward spam to the department who can try to tell the senders to stop. I also interviewed a student who said she hated receiving spam, but that she has not received any this year, and it took me two more weeks when the revisions were due to get the third source, my politics professor who I quickly interviewed at the end of class one day, and who basically said the same thing. When my professor made a comment on this story basically saying there wasn’t much of an investigative component to it, I couldn’t have agreed more, but by the time I chased down enough interviews to realize this, it was too late in the game to find a different topic.

All of my stories turned out like this, and it didn’t help that I was unlucky enough to draw the police beat, a beat which I found out from one of the guest speakers, is the beat which is often given to the least experienced reporters right out of college precisely because it is difficult and less desirable for people who have earned seniority. I was quickly discovering how right they were, and not just because a lot of cops aren’t especially friendly and don’t like talking to real Journalists, let alone students for a silly school assignment, but also because at my college, the occasional car break-in, or underage drinking in the dorm is pretty much the extent of crime, which is a good thing of course, but sadly, this lack of crime was pretty disappointing when I depended on crime for story ideas. On the due date of every story, the professor would randomly partner us up to read and edit each other’s stories, and I was always so envious of my partners who always had better beats, and much better story ideas. One partner with the business beat wrote a story about a law that would allow farmers to sell raw milk, something that has sparked passionate controversy in our state because of safety concerns, and another partner who had the government beat investigated the controversy behind the mayor’s plan to get city water from another lake since the wells the city currently uses for water have too much radium which is unsafe according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The contrast between these stories and my stories was pretty discouraging, but these beat stories were only part of the workload of this class.

In addition to knowing how to write investigative stories, the professor also believed it was important to read other people’s investigative stories with a critical eye, a skill which I would have agreed was important, if only perfecting this skill didn’t have to add another layer to Homework Mountain. Every week, in addition to our current beat story and any revisions due for past stories, we were expected to read our local newspaper regularly because just like with my American politics class, every class began with a current events quiz about local happenings. In addition, sometimes the professor would assign us an investigative series to read, which was always a lot longer than the typical newspaper article, and then answer twelve questions about the series, such as listing what primary and secondary sources were used, strengths and weaknesses of the investigation, and if there were other stories we could write that were similar to that story. These questions weren’t too hard, but since I had so much other work to do, and since even in this class, I made the beat stories my top priority, I found myself scrambling every week to answer these questions, and cram as many newspaper articles down my throat as I could, hoping that for once, I could maybe do well on the quiz, but it never worked. Inevitably, there were always two or three questions I had to leave blank or guess on simply because I didn’t have time to read everything, once again giving this teacher the impression that I didn’t care about this class, though deep inside, I cared about this class the most of all my classes. Just like with Statistics, I sometimes find myself wondering if my professor just gave me an A because he felt sorry for me, or because he was impressed with my effort, even if the fruit of this effort was nothing to write home about. I know I wasn’t alone in my discouragement because I heard other classmates complain constantly, especially about the late hours of the class, and the professor purposely made the class a little difficult so that we would experience the same frustrations and deadline pressure that real Journalists face. For doing this, I actually commended him in a reflection paper he asked us to write about the course because I would rather know what difficulties people working in a field face now rather than have classes sugar coated, and then be in for a shock when I actually got my first job in the field.

But after all of that stress and all those discouraging moments when writing my beat stories, I hate to say it, but I sort of feel the same way I did in high school before the mentorship program, uncertain of what I will do with my life. I know that in the real world, the demands of journalism will be a lot less stressful when I don’t have three other classes competing for my time. I love the fact that Journalists have the potential to right injustice and spark reform. But I have also come to the realization that for every one story that releases an innocent man from prison, there are a million stories that are pursued with vigorous excitement that is dashed by the end of the story for so many reasons, from interview sources whose public relations training only allows them to skirt around issues instead of facing them, and sources who are not public relations focused but simply won’t answer your phone calls and take your work seriously, to the fact that so much of the profession is centered around deadlines making it difficult to pursue stories with thoroughness. Add to that the fact that you are constantly hearing about journalism jobs being cut, and I am left with the disappointing feeling that a profession that is so underappreciated, with public relations people constantly standing in the way of your efforts to uncover the truth, and with so much pressure to investigate stories with such little time that I am beginning to wonder if this is really the right profession for me. I am not the kind of person that lets one class turn me off to a potentially wonderful profession, so I am going to continue pursuing this major. Maybe I am not cut out for Investigative Journalism, but even if I just wrote the straight forward story saying that a fire occurred at a house, or this is what was covered at a government meeting, I would still be doing good work by keeping the community informed, even if information alone doesn’t have the exciting potential to change the world. My parents constantly remind me that I am young so I don’t have to plan my life yet, and that there are so many career possibilities I would be wonderful at if I decide Journalism isn’t right for me. My mom and dad have even said I should think about law school because my mom especially has been impressed by some argumentative essays I have written, something she says lawyers do a lot. For awhile, I kind of halfheartedly said I might think about it, but now that I have gotten a real taste of the difficulties in Journalism, I have started to take this advice more seriously and keep my options open. And if all else fails, my love for singing is still alive and well, so I could always take the Brad Paisley route: find a few good buddies, and start a band. I’m just kidding about that. But no matter which career path life takes me down, I agree with the attitude that things always have a way of working out, so rather than fret about the uncertainty of life, I am starting to appreciate the excitement and potential rewards of a life that is not centered around getting to a concrete destination, but about enjoying the journey, or maybe even straying from the path I planned to take and not worry if it takes me to a new destination because I am finding more and more truth behind that saying which says “It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: